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US regulator demands recall of 158,000 Teslas over dying displays

Image credit: Tesla

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Tesla to recall approximately 158,000 vehicles which may see their media control units failing within five to six years.

The recall follows a probe by the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation into the “media control units” installed in Tesla Model S sedans and Model X SUVs. The investigation was opened in June 2020 after concerns were raised about “failures resulting in loss of rear-view camera and other safety-related vehicle functions”. Tesla has reportedly received over 10,000 requests to replace their media control units.

In November 2020, the investigation entered an engineering analysis process.

Tesla’s large touchscreens – which have been influential in vehicle design since their debut – are used to input controls for many vehicle functions. According to a letter from NHTSA, failures of these units can result in cutting off access to the vehicle’s 'Autopilot' driver assistance system; backup camera; turn signal chime; windshield defogger, and climate controls. This could increase the risk of the vehicle being involved in a collision.

NHTSA requires that Tesla fix the 8GB flash memory chips used in Nvidia Tegra 3 processors to power displays in 2012-18 Model S and 2016-18 Model X vehicles. Whenever a driver turns on one of these vehicles, it slightly erodes the total capacity of the chip.

The expected usage life rating for the flash memory chip is 3,000 program-erase cycles. At a typical daily cycle usage rate, this capacity would be reached in five to six years: “[The office] believes that a five or six-year life expectancy for a component integral to providing the driver with safety functions is insufficient.” Tesla acknowledged to the NHTSA that these chips will “inevitably” fail eventually.

Upon the failure of the media control unit, the display reportedly blacks out. Users have also reported issues such as long boot-up times and increased response times.

NHTSA found that “the failure rate in this investigation is significantly greater than the failure rate for vehicles involved in prior recalls involving similar behaviour”.

Tesla has distributed over-the-air software updates which partially address this issue, although the NHTSA stated that these are “procedurally and substantively insufficient” due to not restoring access to the backup camera (a feature required by law).

This puts the owner in an unenviable position, particularly as the difficulty of acquiring Tesla parts means that there are limited numbers of independent repair companies that can service Teslas.

Consequently, the NHTSA has made the recall request in a formal letter to Tesla's VP for Legal. It is not yet known whether Tesla will resist the recall request by submitting an explanation and analysis within the next two weeks or if it will comply immediately. If it fails to submit a satisfactory explanation or comply, it could face further penalties.

The investigation will continue following the recall request.

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